You can visit Great Moments with Mr. Lincoln at Disneyland by dodging the trolley, forgoing Goofy’s autograph, and hanging a hard right just inside the entrance. As the curtains draw back, Mr. Lincoln rises shakily, levitating his upper body via mechanical legs painfully bolted to the floor, gestures incongruously, and begins to speak, his warm baritone emanating from a hole in a desk several feet away. It’s stirring, but also, as the real Mr. Lincoln might say, “Kinda weird.”
I might say the same thing about My Strange Moment with Mr. Reagan.
I was an intern (as mentioned in a previous post) for a movie company located near the top of the building they blew up in Diehard. Or rather a miniature version of it. That is, the building they blew up in the movie was miniature, not the one I was working in. Because, I mean, if the building I was working in had been miniature… Anyway, one day I arrived an hour earlier than usual and found myself standing next to two Men in Black. They glanced down at me with slightly annoyed “damn, there’s something on my shoe” looks. Then I spotted the auburn-grey pompadoured head that was nearly as familiar to me as my own.
At that moment, Elevator #42 dinged (it was that kind of building)…
…and Ronald Reagan stepped inside, flanked by the two MIBs. I hesitated. The Men gestured for me to take another elevator. Or die. Hard. But Mr. Reagan smiled and said in that famous half-whisper, “It’s OK,” and waved me in. I hesitated just long enough for the portal to begin to close, then hurried inside. The brushed aluminum doors bumped against my foot, then scooted politely back, allowing me to slip inside. They shushed to a close again and the elevator started it’s nearly imperceptible glide to the top of one of the tallest buildings in L.A.
I broke the silence with a devilishly clever, “It’s an honor to meet you, sir.” (Bet he’d never had that one before!) More silence. And then, to my astonishment, he began to tell a story.
“Well,” (he really did say that), “when I was a young man just getting started in broadcasting, I landed a job at a radio station in Davenport, Iowa. And they had an elevator that—well, back in those days elevators had two sets of doors, you see: the wooden ones on the elevator itself and those big cast iron scissor doors on the cage around the elevator…” He smiled at the memory.
“Yeah?” I chuckled. Ronald Reagan, former president of the United States, was telling me an elevator story…in an elevator! I was in the elevator and in on the joke! I’d be repeating it for the rest of my life: “Say, here’s a funny story my friend Ronald Reagan told me. You know, Ronald Reagan the President?”
“You never wanted to hesitate back then, like you did just now,” Mr. Reagan explained, “when entering an elevator,” one eye crinkling into a wink.
“Why?” I asked with a chuckle. I’m interacting, I thought, interacting with the President! Me and the Gipper. The Gipper and me. Freakin’ interacting! (I rarely say freakin’, but sometimes I think it.)
“Because those scissor doors…” he trailed off. “Well, anyhow, one day I’d just stepped into the elevator when this fella leaped in after me.”
“Yeah?” This was gonna be freakin’ great!
“Yep, but then those scissor doors, they closed on his foot and the wooden doors closed on his leg…”
“Uh-oh!” I snorted.
“Uh-oh, indeed,” he said with an odd smile. “And then that elevator starting going up. And you know what?”
“What?” I chortled.
“It ripped his leg off.”
“Well, good-bye,” Mr. Reagan said as the doors to my floor glided open.
The MIBs gestured for me to step out. I obeyed, then turned and said, “Good—” But before I could finish, the doors slammed shut.
“—God.” I finished.
What had just happened?
Had what I thought was a humorous anecdote turned out to be a cautionary tale? A metaphor? Was Mr. Reagan warning me not to jump into an overheated bull market, not to trust Slavic ambassadors? (“I tried to warn him, Nancy, but he was just too thick-headed!”) Or was he merely—pardon the pun—pulling my leg? (“It was great, Nance. You should have seen the look on his face!”)
How had real suddenly turned surreal?
How had my great moment with Mr. Reagan become my strange moment with Mr. Reagan? I’ll never know. But it was a moment, nevertheless, and one I cherish. It was kind of stirring, but also, as Mr. Reagan might have said after the elevator closed, “Kinda weird.”
Note: This incident really occurred. It is not metaphorical, nor is it intended to make a political statement. Neither is any reference to Mr. Reagan’s Alzheimer’s intended. He was diagnosed shortly before I met him and was not reportedly suffering any major symptoms at the time. It was simply a moment.